MRI Shows How Exercise Stops Nicotine Cravings

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
quit smoking
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For the first time, scientists have been able to prove that short bursts of exercise change the way the brain processes the need for nicotine, reducing cigarette cravings. The research contributes to evidence that exercise really can replace the need for nicotine.

The news is good. So far, no one has banned exercise publicly or privately. The study findings may make smoking cessation much easier for anyone committed to a healthier lifestyle.

Researchers at the University of Exeter measured the response of the brain using functional MRI (fMRI) in ten smokers. The group had abstained from smoking for fifteen hours, and then asked to cycle at a moderate pace for just ten minutes.

Next, the smokers were exposed to images of cigarettes that should induce nicotine cravings. The study group also viewed cigarette imagines without performing exercise. They were asked to write down their responses.

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The results of fMRI showed increased activity in the reward center of the brain when the group did not exercise, indicating nicotine craving. The group also reported less desire for nicotine after exercise when they saw cigarette images, versus no exercise.

Study author, Kate Janse Van Rensburg performed the research as part of her PhD at the University of Exeter. "Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise can help people give up smoking. This strengthens the argument that moderate exercise could be a viable alternative to many of the pharmaceutical products, such as nicotine patches, for people who want to give up smoking. A ten or fifteen minute walk, jog or cycle when times get tough could help a smoker kick the habit. There are of course many other benefits from a more active lifestyle including better fitness, weight loss and improved mood."

The scientists believe nicotine cravings may decline after exercise because of increased levels of dopamine, a chemical thought to play an important role in addiction. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, found to be mildly elevated in people with addictions. Medications to manage addictions lower Dopamine levels in the brain, thus reducing the rewards found from addictive behaviors.

Another possible explanation about why short bursts of exercise can help with smoking cessation includes diversion of blood flow to areas of the brain not associated with pleasure derived from smoking.

The new study using fMRI to measure brain flow following exercise supports previous findings that exercise may significantly lower the desire for nicotine. It is the first research to reveal how short bursts of exercise contribute to kicking the nicotine habit, while providing the added benefits of regular exercise.

Source: exeter.ac.uk - First brain study reveals benefits of exercise on quitting smoking

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